Nature versus Not

Mmmm...lovely view of Yokohama from my balcony in Hiyoshi, but...

One of the few things that bothered me about Japan on my first visit nearly ten years ago was the ubiquity of pylons and powerlines. Any line of sight in city or suburb – any hoped-for photographic snapshot or moment of visual peace – would generally be gate-crashed by tall posts and the criss-crossing of dark suspended cables.

... the un-cropped version of the picture gives us a first glimpse of cable trouble...

With streets narrower than I was used to, and an overly-generous concept of ‘park’ stretching to a few square metres of dry dirt at an urban crossroads – sometimes with a lonely-looking children’s swing or two – parts of suburban Japan had the capacity to generate a very particular kind of claustrophobia, even melancholy.

It’s partly the dichotomised popular view of Japan we have in the West: neon cities buzzing with life and innovative consumer technology versus a mountainous rural landscape of austere pre-modern fabrics, samurai swords, bamboo and general calm. What room has there been in our images of Japan for the plain old suburban?

This bothers a great many Japanese people too, of course, as her strong environmental movement attests. The closeness to transient nature that’s long been a part of Japan’s fêted aesthetic has suffered all sorts of dodgy political misuses down the years, and now it’s largely the plaything of advertisers: a saccharin-sweet version of pre-twentieth-century Japan – mountain green, kimono-clad women kneeling demurely on tatami mats, and a generous helping of natural rocks and springs – is mobilised to sell everything from green tea to 4×4’s.

Some serious cabling along the main street in Hiyoshi

Where the cabling and concrete was concerned, however (see Alex Kerr’s fascinating and depressing account of some of the politics behind this), I was surprised by the number of Japanese I met who either claimed not really to have noticed or otherwise not to mind. This is partly down to having grown up with it, surely, but in my case it made me rethink a little: what precisely was I moaning about when I wrote to friends back home of a lack of ‘nature’ in the parts of Japan where I was working? A lack of green space (of the sort that’s been linked to reduced levels of stress)? Too few opportunities to escape from other people – from their architectural and cultural footprints, and from the ‘cocktail party in our heads‘ that constantly being around one another seems to fuel?

This sets the bar dangerously high for ‘nature’, given the lives most people are constrained to lead. Even if we go out of our way to pay ‘nature’ a visit, who hasn’t turned up to some quiet spot to find someone else hanging around nearby? Or – if we’re being especially precious – evidence of someone having been there previously or trying to shape our experience from afar: a seascape marred by a prudish sign about litter or ‘dog fouling'; a forest with council notices nailed to its trees. But unless we’ve climbed, abseiled or hacked our way through to our ultimate ‘quiet spot’, it’s probably reasonably accessible, right? That’s how we got there. And that access is itself a footprint.

A Japanese edition of Amsterdam

Ian McEwan’s character Clive, in Amsterdam, offers a wonderful example of the perils of asking for too much: a composer obsessively seeking silence and originality, and failing to find either…

So what can be done? Environmental activism notwithstanding, the only part of the equation that we can change is our view of ‘nature’, of what is natural and what is not. It’s true that almost everything around us – everything around you right now – bears the marks of human intervention and a kind of rationalizing instrumentality: objects have been conceived, designed, manufactured, and delivered; landscapes have been shaped, they are owned and regulated. And it’s also true that many of us experience an urge to get away from it now and again, and we should probably follow that urge as far as we are able.

But I don’t think we need to set up such a stark contrast between nature on the one hand and cold artefact on the other. The urban environment is just as surely part of nature as green stuff: human beings created these objects, shaped these landscapes, and all the rest – putting into them their upbringings and emotional lives, their flawed expertise and relationships – albeit in ways that might not be obvious to us in the final product. And all these human factors are surely just as much a part of the biological and personal flow of nature as anything else – even the visual clichés of Japan’s idyllic past that infest Tokyo’s famous Yamanote Line trains are, on this reading, a ‘natural’ take on the natural.

I’d still rather a seascape over a tower block, and I’d still rather Japanese utility companies buried their cables, but to see those cables lose a little of their power to oppress is a wonderful thing.

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5 Comments

  • Yoshi Inoue
    April 5, 2012 - 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I would prefer to have the power cables buried too. But I do also feel very at home when I see them.

  • Sarah Walker
    April 5, 2012 - 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant post. Reminded me of when I went to visit the beautiful Beachy Head earlier this year – notorious site of suicide. As I took in the spectacular views, I was met by this sign, http://bit.ly/HkW0QS

    • Chris
      April 9, 2012 - 3:29 am | Permalink

      Excellent photo! It’s hard to believe there’s not a sense of humour somewhere behind the posting of that sign…

    • Katie Phair
      May 5, 2012 - 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Sarah, LOVE that photo! Also, “Amsterdam” is such an excellent book…you’ve made me want to re-read it after the exams are finished.

      The cables/ the sense of claustrophobia are two things I’m really concerned I’ll hate about Japan when I get a chance to go there. Growing up in such an excess of greenery in NI like I did makes concrete extremely depressing. I just love the smells and the clean air you get when you have more greenery…it’s not necessarily a case of ‘nature’, but just of something more organic having an immediate appeal.

      • Ben Epstein
        May 11, 2012 - 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Well, this is something that is common to many parts of the world. I think after a while you get used to them and your eye will eventually find a way to ‘selectively’ look past them.

        As for nature vs. culture, check this out for a mind blast!: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-141-DESCOLA-VIVEIROSpdf.pdf
        What if human beings weren’t connected by a single, biological, nature, but by a common culture and different natures!

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